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Beyond taboos: The sexual life of older adults

The Bottom Line

  • While certain health conditions can affect libido and sexual capacity, many people still want and need intimacy, or have sexual desires, as they grow older.
  • Health, not age, is what truly impacts sexuality.
  • Older adults who are sexually active sometimes face barriers to appropriate care from healthcare providers who view the sexuality of older adults as taboo.
  • Age does not protect you and your partner from sexually transmitted diseases: take steps to protect yourself.

While certain health conditions can affect the libido and sexual capacity, many people still want and need intimacy, or have sexual desires, as they grow older. However, there seem to be taboos and preconceived ideas about the sexuality of older adults.

What the research tells us

Sexuality is defined by the World Health Organization as encompassing sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction.(1) Sexuality can be influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors.

A recent systematic review examined the attitudes and concerns of seniors over 60 in relation to their sexuality.(1) The review identified three main themes: 1) social conventions make it difficult for older adults to express their sexuality; 2) your health (and not age) affects sexuality; and 3) sexuality is often viewed narrowly as the sexual act.

Social conventions make it difficult for older adults to express their sexuality

The systematic review revealed that older adults have the impression that most people assume that they are asexual and thus, they often feel sexually invisible. Society seems to value a sexuality that flourishes in youth and beauty. Older adults who internalize these values and norms are often ashamed of their bodies, and are less likely to express their sexual needs and desires for fear of being judged and excluded.

Older adults also reported gender stereotypes that persist: older women expressing sexual desires appear to be subjected to negative social judgments, unlike older men who see their sexuality legitimized by the sale of drugs to improve their erectile capacities and allow them to "function normally."  

Your health (not age) affects sexuality

The systematic review also highlighted that health, not age, is what has a true impact on sexuality. Older adults who have physical limitations or have certain health conditions reported having a lower ability to engage in sexual activity. Some may take medications, which can alter their ability to have and enjoy sex. Some reported that they were confronted by stereotypical and narrow views when they approached their doctors to discuss sexual problems. Not surprisingly, older adults who face these attitudes from their healthcare providers feel that they do not receive appropriate counselling or care.

Narrow perception of sexuality

The last theme that emerged from the systematic review is that older adults often narrowly define sexuality as sexual intercourse. The loss or decrease in sexual function can thus cause distress, disappointment, frustration and despair among older adults when they fail to experience this so-called "normal" sexuality. However, older adults facing health problems that affect sexual function tend to adopt broader definitions of sexuality and sexual activity.

Enjoying a sexually fulfilling life as you get older

There are many different ways to be intimate and to express your sexuality. Some older adults may choose not to engage in sexual activity, and that is also normal.(2) Regardless of how you choose to be intimate, here are a few things to keep in mind:

- There are normal changes related to aging that may cause sexual problems, but some sexual problems are not related to aging. Talk to your doctor when in doubt.(2; 3)
- Age does not protect you and your partner from sexually transmitted diseases. Take steps to protect yourself.(2; 3)
- Talk with your partner to better understand their needs and desires, and to explore the different facets of sexuality and intimacy.(2; 3)

And let’s keep the conversation going. We all need to get over the taboos about the sexual life of older adults.


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References

  1. Gewirtz-Meydan AH-L, Trish Ayalon, Liat Benyamini, Yael Biermann, Violetta Coffey, Alice Jackson, et al. How do older people discuss their own sexuality? A systematic review of qualitative research studies. Culture, Health & Sexuality. 2018;June(4):1-16.
  2. National Institute on Aging. Sexuality in later life. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2017 [cited in November 2018]. Available at: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/sexuality-later-life
  3. Mayo Clinic. Sexual health and aging: Keep the passion alive. 2017 [cited in November 2018]. Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/sexual-health/in-depth/sexual-health/art-20046698

DISCLAIMER: The blogs are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own healthcare professionals.

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